The mystery of La Contessa - Page 3

A galleon destroyed by fire. A priceless missing statue. Welcome to one of the great mysteries of the San Francisco underground.

Dearmond Sharp, a partner in the firm, belittled the value of the piece and implied Stewart was within his rights as a property owner to burn it.

"What would you do if someone left some junk on your property?" he asked us.

Nevada law calls for property owners to notify vehicle owners "by registered or certified mail that the vehicle has been removed and will be junked or dismantled or otherwise disposed of unless the registered owner or the person having a security interest in the vehicle responds and pays the costs of removal."

"What he should have done is get letters out and make a good-faith effort to find a [vehicle license number] or see who the owner is, little things like that," Bloom told us. Nonetheless, after talking with the prosecutor, Bloom said criminal charges are unlikely. He said, "Chances are this is something they will pursue civilly."

Also destroyed in the fire, according to Schaber, was an International Scout truck with a new motor and a MIG welder inside, owned by Dogg Erickson, which he said he parked alongside La Contessa so it would be partly protected from sandstorms.

"Everything was toast," Erickson said. "I was pretty pissed, both about my truck and La Contessa. It floors me, and I don't know what to do about it."

Cheffins, mechanical design engineer Greg Jones, and others associated with La Contessa and Burning Man all say they never received any message from Stewart asking for La Contessa to be removed. And Cheffins said he believed he had the implied consent of Stewart to store the ship where it was.

Jones and Cheffins said that while they were securing La Contessa for the winter of 2004–5, Stewart drove by and talked to them but said nothing about removing the ship. "We talked to him about all kinds of stuff, and we were impressed by him," Jones said.

La Contessa caretaker Mike Snook also said that he met Stewart in 2005 while he was with the ship and that Stewart didn't express a desire to have the piece off the property. Jones said there were plenty of people in town connected to Burning Man through whom Stewart could have communicated: "It's a visible enough art piece that if he really wanted to get it off his property, someone would have known where we are," Jones said.

Burning Man spokesperson Marian Goodell told us Stewart never contacted the organization and that if he had, it would have facilitated the piece's removal from the property.

"We were surprised to hear about the fire, absolutely shocked," she said. "It was a very iconic piece, and a lot of people are going to miss La Contessa."

According to Bloom, Stewart also claims to have contacted Grant about removing La Contessa and other items from the property. "He contacted her and said, 'What are you going to do with it,' and she said, 'Do what you want with it,' " Bloom told us. But Grant (whom Bloom did not interview for his report) told us, "That's not truthful," adding that she hasn't spoken with Stewart in a very long time and wouldn't have given him permission to destroy the artwork.

Sharp did not directly answer the Guardian's questions about what specific actions Stewart took to contact the galleon's owners, but he did tell us, "He didn't know the owners, and they weren't identified.... The vehicle wasn't licensed and had no registration and wasn't legal to drive on the road. It wasn't a vehicle."

Whether or not it was a vehicle is what triggers the notification provisions under Nevada law: the section on abandoned vehicles prohibits leaving them on someone's property "without the express or implied consent of the owner."

"It was dumped there, and there is no written consent or implied consent," Sharp told us, responding to our question about implied consent.